As any St. Louis resident will tell you, the public schools remain perhaps the biggest bruise to the city's damaged psyche. After decades of academic and enrollment declines, the district lost its accreditation four years ago this month and remains unaccredited.
Today the district is often cited as the No. 1 reason why people move out of the city or choose to live elsewhere when searching for a new home. But could hope be on the horizon?
If you listen to Wallace, you get a slight sense of optimism. Here -- in bullet points -- are some of the more promising (and disturbing) statistics that he's been sharing with city residents this year.
- The district last year improved its state academic score from a 3 to a 5, and this year hopes to improve that score to a 6. Such a score allow the district to become "provisionally accredited" under state guidelines that rank districts on a possible 14-point scale based on MAP and other test scores. To become fully accredited, the district would have to earn a score of 9.
- For the first time in years, the district is expected to have a balanced ledger in 2011, spending $100,000 less than its $274.7 million budget
- Despite the district not being accredited, the individual high schools are all accredited by the NCA, ensuring that colleges accept diplomas from those schools.
- Over the last two years, high school graduates from the district have been offered more than $75 million in higher-ed scholarships.
- This summer, the district will begin spending some of the $155 million bond issue that St. Louis voters approved last August. The money will go toward building renovation, science labs and early childhood education, among other capital improvements.
- Nearly two-thirds of students (3,350 vs. 2,200) attend selective high schools within the district. The rest of the students attend the four comprehensive high schools of Beaumont, Sumner, Roosevelt and Vashon. Throw out the academic performance from those four high schools, and the district academic scores and attendance rate increase dramatically.
- Poverty continues to be a major hurdle, with students in the district among the poorest in the state. Eighty-seven percent of SLPS students qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to 47 percent statewide. More than seven percent of students in the district are currently homeless.
- Dwindling enrollment: SLPS has a current enrollment of 25,383 students and continues to lose pupils to charter schools, even though some of those charter schools are academically worse than the public schools and not required to be accredited by the state.
- Desegregation losses: More than 5,000 black city students choose to attend schools in the county through voluntary desegregation. These students are some of the best and brightest from the city, as the county schools can choose which students they'll take based on attendance, discipline records and other performance factors. Meanwhile, fewer than 200 white county kids choose to attend schools in the city, which means the district loses more students (and state education dollars) than it takes in through desegregation.
- Graduation: In 2010, St. Louis public high schools graduated just 60 percent of students within four years compared to 85 percent statewide.
What can you do to improve St. Louis public schools?
There are volunteer opportunities available, and Wallace would love to tell you about them. But the biggest item on his wish list is to encourage residents to stop by for visit.
"The schools have earned a reputation that just isn't representative of how they perform today," says Wallace, who invites residents to contact him for a tour at [email protected].
"I think most people would be blown away by how the city schools operate and find them to be no different than private or county schools. The best way to do that is to get them in here to see for themselves."